Boston’s community college problem

Originally published in CommonWealth Magazine
June 29, 2019

By Juma Crawford and Marisa Meldonian

Less than 3 percent of newly enrolled, full-time students graduate on time from community colleges in Boston: 2 percent at Bunker Hill Community College and 1 percent at Roxbury Community College. It’s college decision time, and most students in Boston Public Schools will become part of a broken system of “well-meaning” adults, who are severely allergic to accountability.

Most of the students in BPS who are from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan—some of our most talented but underserved communities (mostly of color)—matriculate to a two-year college, either Bunker Hill or Roxbury. As a community, we must stop failing our most vulnerable students. It’s time to tell the truth about the current state of our community colleges for our BPS students.

The truth is, 76 percent of BPS students who enrolled in two-year colleges never earned any post-secondary degree. The common narrative is that two-year students are successful and transfer at high rates to four-year schools. We perpetuate this narrative to cover our own complacency for a failing system. In reality, this narrative is a fallacy. Only 5 percent of the 800 two-year enrollees from the BPS class of 2011 transferred to and graduated from a four-year institution.

Even the most recent, extensive report on these outcomes found the numbers to be so low that it struggled to provide recommendations to improve success at two-year campuses. Yet, this finding didn’t cause people to bat an eye; there was no public uproar or op-ed articles written. We must stop setting lower expectations for institutions that serve largely black and brown young people.

The expectations of Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges cannot be any lower: Only five students in total graduated from Bunker Hill in two years from the 2013 cohort, and none graduated from Roxbury Community College. Zero.

This should raise alarm bells across the Commonwealth. When you look at the three-year graduation rate, it increases to 11 percent at Bunker Hill and 9 percent at Roxbury. The four-year graduation rate only reaches 17 percent (Bunker Hill) and 15 percent (Roxbury). All of these stats coupled with decades of continued failure tell a hard truth: Our complacency is the soft bigotry of low expectations. What is the point of increased access to educational opportunities if success is a pipe dream?

Moreover, when students leave these two-year institutions they leave with an average of $3,800 to $6,000 of debt, and often leave without any earned academic credit due to non-credit-bearing remedial courses many must first enroll in. This means institutions are earning money off the backs of 76 percent students who will never graduate. Taking on $6,000 of debt when you have less than a 17 percent success rate does not seem wise, especially for low-income students. Yet, BPS continues to funnel its students to these institutions despite decades of poor success rates. The truth is that these institutions are failing generations of young people by further spiraling them into debt, failed employment pathways, and intergenerational poverty.

We must be honest, more impatient, and urgent with our actions. Here are three recommendations:

  1. Focus on jobs. Community colleges in Boston must evolve into economic development engines that provide a pipeline into competitive, well-paying jobs across all fields—and particularly the unions here in Boston. Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology is an example of an institution already doing this, with a 94 percent employment rate within six months of graduation and a $38,440 median starting salary after graduation.

  2. All classes should be credit-bearing, with a clear and simple roadmap for credits to transfer between Massachusetts institutions. The Commonwealth must move faster in implementing key strategic initiatives, such as Early College Access, MassTransfer Pathways, and Cohort-Based Support Models. Every class a student takes should move him or her closer to graduation. Other community colleges have taken steps to address the issue of remedial classes that don’t offer credit, and Boston should more urgently follow suit. One example is Guttman Community College in New York City, which uses a co-enrollment model to enroll students in a remedial class and college-level class at the same time in order not to delay students from earning credit.

  3. Increase transparency. The Commonwealth and community colleges must be brutally honest about where results stand and urgent with improvements. The 1 percentage point annual improvement goals put forth by Massachusetts Department of Higher Education for a six-year graduation rate are not sufficiently urgent. Not even close. While the state has taken some steps to address this issue by publishing an online performance measurement system, only measuring the six-year graduation rate continues to disguise the reality for first time, full-time students from BPS (Bunker Hill CC data, Roxbury CC data). It also begs the question of whether going to community college full-time for six years is worth it, given the significantly increased earning potential of a four-year degree.

It still holds true that earning a college degree is one of the best economic decisions a person can make based on monetary earnings over a lifetime. This is even more significant given the fact that, in Boston, the wealth gap for black families as compared to white families is not 10-fold, 50-fold, or even 500-fold; it is 30,937-fold. Nationally, this is only 9-fold. The average black family in Boston has a median net worth of $8, compared to the median white family with $247,500. We need our community colleges to help close this gap.

Having a strong community college system will make Boston a healthier and more inclusive city. We need to bring our two-year schools to the table to publicly address the challenges and identify clear, tangible benchmarks and actions to be taken. For the sake of young people in Boston, we should not settle for anything less than sustained, significant improvement.

Juma Crawford is president and Marisa Meldonian is director of operations at the Lewis Family Foundation.